You may remember my post from a few months ago about the difficulty behind designing a new “save” icon. But that’s not the only icon that has issues. A designer by the name of Min Ming Lo has a fantastic article comparing the different “share” icons, including the difficulty of describing such a vague and general event using a single symbol.
While I won’t go into everything he covers in his article (and I instead highly encourage you to read it for yourself) there are some points I find especially interesting to consider. The first being the act of “sharing” in modern technology terms. With saving, the main variations that I discussed was the target — is s le being saved to your computer, or the cloud? And with sharing we come across a similar question. What is the desired target of our sharing? Can we create an icon that represents sharing with a single friend in one instance, but represents sharing with the world in another? And then we have a follow-up question: what if we want to give users both options? We also have the question of how an item is being shared. Facebook uses a share icon to allow users to post an item to their own wall, thus sharing it with their friends. Google Docs, on the other hand, uses a share icon to represent collaborative folders. We have two completely different ways of sharing something that we are attempting to represent with a single symbol. And its no easy task.
Min Ming Lo’s suggestion for a “share” icon looks like this:
Cute, right? I actually really like this suggestion. But only for some circumstances. It would be perfect for Google’s shared folders because it indicates something multiple are contributing to simultaneously. For situations where content is shared one-way, such as Facebook, this icon wouldn’t work. Perhaps the solution is to have two icons, each representing different actions. It’s a tradeoff between simplicity and clarity. Adding a second icon will make interfaces more complicated but it will make them more understandable to users.
It’s an interesting question, and unlike last time I don’t have my own solution to toss into the ring. But as our world becomes ever more geared towards social technological interaction, we will need to find a solution or risk fragmentation. And while it could be argued that we currently use a fragmented system to some degree of success, any designer who takes a step back to look at the situation as a whole would be able to tell you that this isn’t the right way to do it. Luckily, Min Ming Lo has already taken care of that for us, so take a look at his thoughts and, who knows, maybe you will come up with a better solution!